Broadway dives back into Waters

'Cry-Baby' hopes to fill romantic comedy niche

It’s not always easy being the second child.

As of spring, John Waters will be the proud papa of two Broadway tuners, with “Cry-Baby,” a musical adaptation of his pic, set to join “Hairspray” as inspired by the cult director’s work.

Given its pedigree, “Cry-Baby” finds itself negotiating a tricky balance: The $12 million production not only hopes to catch the wave of success of “Hairspray” — but also to make its own mark .

With Broadway beginning to look beyond the strike-addled fall frame, “Cry-Baby” aims to fill the musical romantic-comedy niche so far left vacant in the developing season slate.

Still waiting on theater availability, the musical plans on an April opening; legiters believe “Cry-Baby” is eyeing the Marquis if “The Drowsy Chaperone” exits.

“Cry-Baby” arrives in New York just as “Hairspray” has experienced a resurgence in biz and international profile. The Tony-winning Broadway incarnation of Waters’ 1988 film recently saw box office buoyed by the movie-musical adaptation released this summer, which has grossed almost $120 million domestically. Meanwhile, a long-gestating West End production is finally up and running, last week nabbing London’s Evening Standard Award for top tuner.

But even with “Hairspray” re-establishing its hold, the producing team behind “Cry-Baby” are not too concerned about being overshadowed.

“You’re always going to be compared, and if the show isn’t good, you’re going to be in for a more brutal lashing,” says Adam Epstein, who produces “Cry-Baby” along with fellow “Hairspray” vets Elan McAllister and Allan Gordon, among others. “But there wasn’t only one Neil Simon hit.”

“Where ‘Hairspray’ is John Waters’ Cinderella story, this is his ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” adds McAllister.

Based on the 1990 pic toplined by Johnny Depp, “Cry-Baby” follows the 1950s-set romance between a motorcycle-riding bad-boy “drape” nicknamed Cry-Baby and the goody-two-shoes “square” Allison.

The creative team assembled by the producers includes some vets from Waters’ previous hit while branching out in new directions. The book is by “Hairspray” duo Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, but the score is by Broadway newcomers Adam Schlesinger and David Javerbaum.

The show is directed by Mark Brokaw (“Reckless”), a frequent play helmer making his debut staging a large-scale musical. As with “Hairspray,” Waters is involved as a consultant to the production.

The producers tapped O’Donnell and Meehan for their familiarity with the skewed sensibility of Waters, whose work — “Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble,” “Polyester,” “Serial Mom” — tends to mine the rarely explored intersection of sweetness and dementia.

Composer Schlesinger is best-known as the co-founder and bassist of pop band Fountains of Wayne (“Stacy’s Mom”), while lyricist Javerbaum is a “Daily Show” exec producer whose legit credits include the musical “Suburb,” which played Off Broadway in 2001.

The producers hope the songwriting pair can help the tuner draw the younger auds likely to appreciate the “Daily Show” irreverence Javerbaum brings to the score, which includes an ode to the sloppy pleasures of French-kissing.

And as the season’s offerings continue to firm up, Epstein sees a clear place for “Cry-Baby” in the 2007-08 Broadway lineup.

The tuner slate includes two mega-budget spectaculars (“Young Frankenstein” and “The Little Mermaid”), a small-scale comedy (“Xanadu”) and an intimate drama (the upcoming “A Catered Affair”).

Not yet on the bill: a frothy tuner romance. “In terms of a boy-gets-girl musical comedy in primary colors, I think ‘Cry-Baby’ fills that slot this season,” Epstein says.

La Jolla Playhouse a.d. Christopher Ashley reports that word of mouth is strong among subscribers at the San Diego area theater, where the tuner is midway through its tryout run. “Everyone loves a triumph-of-the-misfit story,” he says.

La Jolla committed to “Cry-Baby” under the tenure of Ashley’s predecessor Des McAnuff, presenting a Gotham workshop of the show last spring. But once the musical’s six-week run in San Diego concludes, the theater becomes far less involved in the tuner’s future life. “After it leaves La Jolla, we’re more fans than producers,” Ashley says.

Press from the tryout has been largely upbeat. Variety critic Bob Verini called it “exuberantly witty,” while the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Anne Marie Welsh said it is “talent-stuffed, deliriously danced.” She added, however, that the tuner is “still struggling to find the right comedic core that might give it a shot — and some singularity — on Broadway.”

Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty wished for more of Waters’ trademark tastelessness.

“Those were certainly encouraging notices,” says Epstein. “There were some valuable points there, and we’re not finished. There’s still some tweaking to be done.”

The show is frozen in La Jolla, but work will continue when rehearsals pick up in Gotham, probably sometime in February.

Even if “Cry-Baby” proves a “Hairspray”-sized success, don’t expect producers to turn the entire Waters canon into tuners.

“Along with ‘Hairspray,’ ‘Cry-Baby’ is one of John’s two nostalgia pieces,” says O’Donnell. “That makes them more natural for a musical fairy tale.”

So one of Waters’ early, edgy gross-out comedies won’t likely hit the boards anytime soon. ” ‘Pink Flamingos’? “That’s more of an opera,” O’Donnell cracks.

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